- Elena Maria Vidal
New Cover and New Review
The Paradise Tree opens in 1887 Ontario, where a clan mourns the death of family patriarch Daniel O'Connor, an Irish immigrant who has lead a tough life peppered with illness, battle and many struggles. Through it all Daniel and his wife have kept their faith and passed it on to a new generation; and now it's up to grandson Fergus to take these family values and move on.
Readers seeking a spicy immigrant saga replete with Catholic faith and the search for spiritual and social freedom will find The Paradise Tree is just the ticket: it's historical fiction writing at its best, bringing alive not just the events of one man's life, but the underlying motivations, perceptions and struggles it embraces.
Through Elena Maria Vidal's descriptions, the beliefs and driving force behind a devout Catholic immigrant's experiences comes to life with driving passages of color and passion defining the forces that ultimately compel an immigrant to leave his homeland for the unknown:
During the night, the crash of the waves sounded through the chambers of Daniel’s mind, speaking to him of another place, a faraway place mentioned in one of the old songs. The words urged themselves back into his memory:
There is a distant isle/Around which sea-horses glisten;/Let not your intoxication overcome thee; Begin a voyage across a clear sea . . . .
Daniel thought of the legends of the western seas and the Blessed Otherworld, which even holy monks like St. Brendan had sought to find. An inexpressible yearning welled in the depths of his being, as if something indefinable called to him from far away.
Poetic, lyrical passages skillfully capture these motivators, which range from social and political change to failed crops and specter of starvation and a clan's survival. No punches are pulled: this is also a story of addiction and depression: facets that many immigrant stories leave out when recounting struggles.
In order to appreciate the present-day events, the past needs to be thoroughly explored. The Paradise Tree does an outstanding job of creating this link with its a history of an Irish heritage, passed on from a grandfather's tales to his young grandson:
…So harsh were the laws that many Protestant authorities would not enforce them, and looked the other way. The religious orders, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Carmelites did not abandon us, but kept the faith of our people alive. They built tiny chapels, but those were few and far between. In my grandparents' day, Catholics went to Mass in private homes, at the back of the pub, or in the open fields at places called scathlans or Mass rocks. My parents went to hedge schools in the countryside, and the brave Presentation sisters taught many Irish children in and around Cork.” “I suppose it would have been easier for the Irish if they had all become Protestants?” Fergie wondered. Now that he was going to school, he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was Catholic. The grandfather chuckled at the idea, so unthinkable that it was humorous. “Aye, easier to live, Fergie lad. Easier to live, but not easier to die.
As the lives of Daniel and his wife Bridget come to life, so are readers steeped in the culture, influences and motivations of a family unified by forces that invade their close-knit world and change the course of their lives.
The Paradise Tree is a solid example of historical fiction at its best, illustrating the circumstances affecting its protagonists and capturing the drama of lives well lived. The fact that it's all based on the author's own family heritage ("…elements of The Paradise Tree were gleaned from private family papers and unpublished or privately published works, including assorted letters, newspaper clippings, and legal documents."), documenting how the author's family emigrated from Ireland to Canada, just makes it all the more compelling.